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He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Exodus 32:4

Even when they had cast an image of a calf for themselves and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies.

Nehemiah 9:18

The wording in Hebrew is different, Exodus uses a plural pronoun and plural verbs, while Nehemiah uses a singular pronoun and singular verbs.

What is the reason for the difference in wording between the books?

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  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Why is "gods" plural in Exodus 32:4 and 32:8, when there was only one Golden Calf?
    – Anne
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:33
  • @Anne No, it does not. The first answer doesn't answer why Nehemiah is singular, and the second and third answers are mistaken. None of them explain the difference between the phrases recorded in Exodus and Nehemiah. Jan 24, 2023 at 16:44
  • It seems you were not happy with the answers given to that previous question of yours, so have posted a very similar question again. You can do that, of course.
    – Anne
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:43

3 Answers 3

1

Here is my very literal translation of both texts to show their differences and similarities:

Exodus 32:4

"These [are] your gods, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt"

  • אֵ֤לֶּה (eleh = "these") is plural
  • אֱלהִים (elohim = "gods") is plural in form but its grammatical number must be determined by context, plural in this case
  • הֶעֱל֖וּךָ (he-eluka = "brought you") is plural

Nehemiah 9:18

"This [is] your god that brought you out of Egypt ..."

  • זֶ֣ה (zeh = "this") is singular
  • אֱלהִים (elohim = "gods") is plural in form but its grammatical number must be determined by context, singular in this case
  • הֶעֶלְךָ֖ (he-elka = "brought you") is singular

[There is an almost identical sentence describing Jeroboam's two calves in 1 Kings 12:28 where the plural is used.]

Note that the word אֱלהִים is in both case plural in form but acts grammatically as plural in one case and singular in the other case.

Why there is such a difference between the two is unknown. However, it has been observed previously, without plausible explanation such as in the Cambridge commentary on Ex 32:4

These be thy gods Cf. almost the same words in 1 Kings 12:28 : in the allusion, Nehemiah 9:18, the singular ‘This’ is used. ‘These’ must refer to an actual plural, and is of course quite suitable in speaking of Jeroboam’s two calves; here it seems as if the narrator had used the plural for the purpose of introducing a covert polemic against the calf-worship of the N. kingdom. So v. 8.

Benson is similar (Ex 32:4):

These be thy gods — Or as Nehemiah expresses, (Nehemiah 9:18,) This is thy God; that is, This is the image or symbol of thy God; who brought thee out of Egypt

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Exodus uses a plural pronoun and plural verbs. Why?

Let's see the context, Exodus 32:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.

The Israelites were thinking about gods, plural.

As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These [plural] are your gods[plural], O Israel, who brought [plural] you up out of the land of Egypt!”

The pronoun, noun, and verb are all in plural form. Why?

Because the Israelites were thinking of polytheism.

On the other hand, Nehemiah was thinking of monotheism from his perspective. Let's check the local context, Nehemiah 9:

17 They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you [singular] performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God [singular] ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. 18 Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This [singular pronoun] is your God [plural noun in form but singular in function] who brought [singular verb] you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, 19 you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness.

The respective local context shows that Moses showed the Israelites' perspective in Exodus while Nehemiah was writing from his personal perspective some hundreds of years later.

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  • I'm not so sure about this because Nehemiah is condemning the errors of the Israelites (which would include polytheism, if they had committed it). Jan 24, 2023 at 22:16
  • 1
    Right. I have not contradicted that. It was a matter of context and focus in Nehemiah 9:18.
    – user35953
    Jan 24, 2023 at 23:46
  • But of polytheism was one of the sins commited by the Golden Calf worshippers, why doesn't Nehemiah allude to it? Jan 25, 2023 at 0:25
  • 1
    Indeed, he did but that wasn't his focus in Nehemiah 9:18.
    – user35953
    Jan 25, 2023 at 13:27
  • 1
    the focus in Nehemiah 9:18
    – user35953
    Jan 25, 2023 at 14:16
0

These two verse, Exodus 32:4 and Nehemiah 9:18 are stunningly different versions of the same event.

The MT for Exodus 32:4 is:

וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ1 עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל2 אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם3

And for Nehemiah 9:18:

אַף כִּי עָשׂוּ לָהֶם1 עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ זֶה אֱלֹהֶיךָ2 אֲשֶׁר הֶעֶלְךָ מִמִּצְרָיִם3 וַיַּעֲשׂוּ נֶאָצוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת

In the above MT citations I have delineated three parallel phrases in each verse in bold text and numbered each parallel phrase.

The first parallel:

  1. He took from their hands and formed it in a mold, (Exodus)
  2. they had cast (Nehemiah)

Exodus makes no bones about Aaron being the one who did the work of making the golden calf. Nehemiah re-writes this completely to remove any direct reference to Aaron, and blames "them", but without saying "Israel". Thus Nehemiah takes extraordinary care to not implicate a person, Aaron, who is his superior by far, and also takes pains not to use the name "Israel" which would alienate members of the northern tribes from the diaspora who Nehemiah is trying to include in the new commonwealth.

The second set of parallel phrases is:

  1. These are your gods, O Israel (Exodus)
  2. This is your God (Nehemia)

In Exodus and other earlier books of the Bible, the word Elohim should be understood as "deity" or "Deity". By Nehemia's time the word Elohim has undergone a transformation from "Deity" to being a proper name for God, and this explains the transformation from plural, to singular.

Most surprisingly, Exodus is saying, "this golden calf is your deity", (who you will worship), without mentioning YHVH in any name or form. But Nehemiah re-writes this to say that they, the Israelites in fact said something blasphemous, "this golden calf is God", using what is by now a proper name for YHVH.

Finally,

  1. that brought you out of the land of Egypt (Exodus)
  2. who brought you up out of Egypt (Nehemiah)

Exodus says, "the Deity that brought you from the land of Egypt", whereas Nehemiah says "[God, the LORD] who brought you up from Egypt". Exodus makes the case that the LORD should be our deity, whereas Nehemiah speaks to an audience who is returning to the LORD who is already their deity.

Nehemiah uses "Egypt" rather than "the land of Egypt" to emphasis that it is not the land but the culture and the situation from which Israel was delivered. This fits his message to convince the Persian Jewish exiles to abandon Persia and return to the land of Israel to worship God in the rebuilt temple.

So Nehemiah is actually bending Exodus 32:4 for his own polemic purposes.

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